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Teens' T-Shirts Make Educators Squirm

Among Gar-Field Senior High students who wear T-shirts that make adults nervous are Ruth Santos, right, a sophomore, and Keana Pulley, a senior.
Among Gar-Field Senior High students who wear T-shirts that make adults nervous are Ruth Santos, right, a sophomore, and Keana Pulley, a senior. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Ashli Walker rifled through a rack of designer T-shirts one recent afternoon, pondering which one she should buy and wear the next day to Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's County. The big black one that read, "TRUST ME..I'M SINGLE"? Or the snug white T-shirt emblazoned with, "I KNOW WHAT BOYS WANT"?

They're blatantly sexual, occasionally clever and often loaded with double meanings, forcing school administrators and other students to read provocations stripped across the chest, such as "yes, but not with u!," "Your Boyfriend Is a Good Kisser" and "two boys for every girl." Such T-shirts also are emblematic of the kind of sleazy-chic culture some teenagers now inhabit, in which status can be defined by images of sexual promiscuity that previous generations might have considered unhip.

The T-shirts, which school officials say are racier than ever, are posing dress-code dilemmas on Washington area campuses. School systems typically ban clothing that expresses vulgarity, obscenity or lewdness or that promotes cigarettes, alcohol, drugs or weapons. For instance, T-shirts advertising Budweiser or the movie "Scarface," with Al Pacino holding a tommy gun, are taboo.

But sexually suggestive T-shirts often fall into a gray area that requires officials to evaluate one shirt at a time. Some messages are considered harmless -- "Single and Ready to Mingle" or "My Boyfriend Is a Good Kisser." Others are not.

"We try not to make a huge deal out of it, but we also want to be protecting the school environment," said Rick Mondloch, an associate principal at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County, who recently ordered a "Pimps" shirt turned inside out. "These shirts are more risque than they were even five years ago and probably a little more blunt, so you have to be attuned to it."

Robynne Prince, an assistant principal at Eleanor Roosevelt, said: "If there are shirts with obvious sexual connotations, then we know exactly what we're going to do, but there are some students who push the envelope."

For teenagers who chafe at clothing rules for midriffs and cleavage, "attitude" shirts offer a chance to show some skin, without showing skin.

"We have so many dress codes or whatever, so the T-shirts are like us rebelling against the teachers and principals because we can't wear what we want," said Ashli, 17, a junior at Eleanor Roosevelt, in Greenbelt, who said she does not want to have sex until she is married. "I think most girls and boys get the T-shirts because they're funny and they draw attention to you. I don't really care what guys say."

Her mother, Yakini Ajanaku, does not mind her daughter's T-shirts because she said Ashli wears them to be ironic. "I know she's a sweet girl, and I know that she's very conservative and is not sexually active," Ajanaku said. "Other people would probably get the wrong message, but I am pretty much like, 'Who cares what they think?' "

In a culture that bombards teenagers with sexual imagery -- think of rapper 50 Cent's song "Candy Shop," about the pleasures of consuming lollipops -- the T-shirts are just another way to revel in raunchy entertainment, without necessarily getting physical, according to students interviewed for this story.

"It gives me a little edge, but it's just to get a rise out of people, because people know me," said Allison Wynn, 17, a senior at Osbourn Park High School in Prince William County. "They're just like in every ad you see in magazines, people wearing these clothes or they're always making out. It's how you want to be. My boyfriend thinks it's funny." She said she is fond of wearing a shirt that says, "Don't Call Me a Cowgirl Until You See Me Ride."

Joanne Wynn said her daughter's shirts are humorous. "If it's not in good taste, I don't let [her] wear it," she said.


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